Each summer, we make a conscious decision to make a trip to India as a family and come back to the U.S. feeling totally refreshed and rejuvenated. To be able to absorb and assimilate two different cultures, traditions and values and love them equally is indeed an enriching experience. What a contrast it provides with the quiet suburban life here in the U.S. to the dusty, crowded sounds and smells of the Indian galis. And the kids love it. They also love the mini-vacation that we take within India itself with the extended family of grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles.
During our visit to India this time we planned a visit to the famed ruins of the Vijayanagar Empire at Hampi and Vijayanagar. The ruins are in the state of Karnataka, on the border of Andhra Pradesh. Since we were in Hyderabad we booked our tickets by train to Hospet, the nearest train station to the ruins. We actually made reservations on the Internet for a KTDC hotel at Kamalapur, the closest location to the ruins. However that was not exactly where we landed eventually.
At the stroke of midnight our train arrived at Hospet, the nearest town to Hampi. The auto drivers at the railway station informed us that Kamalapur was a little isolated and apart from the hotel and the ruins there was no means of either transportation or food close by. What a dilemma in the middle of the night! To go or not to go, that was the question. We decided to take the advice of the ticket collector and the good-natured auto drivers and stay in Hospet. How right our decision was we were to know only later. We hired an auto to go to the nearby hotel, the Nagarjuna Residency. To our delight we found that we could get decent rooms, reasonably priced, with friendly and courteous service.
Next morning we hired the same two autos as they had miraculously appeared again in the morning and offered to drive us around the whole day. After agreeing on what seemed like a reasonable rate for the whole day and a sumptuous breakfast of idlis and sambar we set off for Hampi, about seven miles from Hospet. The ruins of Hampi date back to the early 16th century when Krishna Deva Raya, the illustrious Hindu ruler from Andhra, established his empire after the disappearance of the Hoysalas. The founders were called Hakka and Bukka. Under Krishnadevaraya’s reign, the kingdom prospered. The king spent time, money, and energy to built temples and beautify the city. He was also a patron of arts and letters. He himself was a poet and a composer in Sanskrit and Telugu. His successors were however weak and the kingdom eventually disintegrated into ruins after the Muslim invasion.
We saw the same ruins. We were told that as recent as in the early 70s excavations have been carried out and new ruins discovered. On a cooler day it would have been easy to walk along the ruins of the collection of shrines and temples scattered around an area of nine square miles. Some fortifications cover a larger area. It was a particularly hot day and we were thankful for our five-liter Bisleri bottles that we carried with us while the kids clutched and drank thirstily from their plastic water bottles.
The terrain is rocky and hilly and the road trip to Hampi and Kamalapur from Hospet is an adventure by itself. We had to navigate through the early morning sabzi mandis, children cluttered on rickshaws on the way to school, and women going about their daily chores. Hospet is not developed as a tourist attraction. It retains its rustic and rural charm and can be truly astonishing to an outsider. The kuchcha road eventually turns into a fairly smooth tar road with sugarcane and paddy fields on both sides with the occasional tourist or city bus and taxis crossing by.
As soon as we reached Kamalapur tourist guides clamoring to show us around surrounded us. Since we had only promised ourselves two days we hired a tour guide to take us to all the significant monuments.
The Virupakhsha Temple stands on the river Tungabhadra and is one of the oldest and most sacred shrines where the deity Virupaksha (a form of Shiva) is still worshipped. Most temples are in honor of Shiva and Vishnu, but Virupaksha, we are told, was the family deity. To reach the temple we had to pass a ruined gateway on the east, which led us down a steep path into the rocks where we could view, the Hampi bazaar below and then arrive on the main entrance to the temple. This is also known as the Pampati temple. The guide told us that parts of the temple date back earlier than the Vijayanagara rulers. Vijayanagara rulers had added to this temple later. This temple stands in front of a large courtyard surrounded. The temple displayed beautiful Chalukyan architecture with pierced windows and pillars carved in black stone. The pillars depict Krishna and the Dasavataras, the ten incarnations of Vishnu. In the inner sanctum, archway and the roof, these carvings are also visible. Parts of this temple have been restored as it was starting to crack. People used to be allowed up its many floors, but it has recently been declared unsafe.
The King’s Balance, situated a short distance from the temple, was used to weigh the king on one side and gold and silver coins on the other. This money was then given away to the poor. The ceremony was performed only on special occasions. On closer look we found that the scales were supported on two huge granite pillars and resembled a Gopuram or a gateway. It was a very interesting piece of art.
Another interesting piece of architecture that we saw was the Throne Platform or the House of Victory. This was an imposing structure, massive and very impressive—made of carved granite blocks and slabs. As we reached the top we spied a small room below the floor-level that you could approach by a narrow flight of steps. The guide informed us that this room was probably used to store all the jewels and gems of the king. The platform was beautifully sculpted with intricate carvings of elephants, soldiers, horses, and dancing girls. One could actually picture the scene of the king dressed in all his splendor presiding over the festivities on this platform. We were also able to get excellent view of the ruins around from here, the Zenana enclosure, the Hazara Rama temple and the Elephant stables.
The most striking aspect of the Hampi ruins was its rugged landscape and unlike other tourist spots where the effort is made to develop the roads and the trees, Hampi is fairly untouched and one can see desert-like landscape with huge rocks, wild foliage, and the hot dusty ruins.
The Hazara Rama temple was the private place of worship for the kings. This is probably the most wonderful specimen of Hindu temple architecture of the Vijayanagar period. The temple stands in a walled enclosure and has a lovely porch in the front and the main temple is itself supported by four aesthetically carved black stone pillars. The bas reliefs adorning the walls and pillars depict scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. There is also a smaller shrine for the consort. Like many other temples in southern India there are other smaller shrines in the courtyard each with its own distinct design.
A sudden breakaway from this is the Zenana Enclosure. Here we got a glimpse of the Indo Saracenic style of architecture. This was the place where the women folk lived. The walls are high and it is totally enclosed. The guide regaled us with stories about the queen and her consorts. There is a great bath between the courtyard and I had to marvel at the expertise of masonry and plumbing in that period. Watch towers on each side suggested that the ladies watched events taking place outside of the enclosure and used it as a spot for pleasure watching.
The finest building here was the Lotus Mahal. An interesting combination of Indo Saracenic style and Hindu style—with pillars and arches and ornate corners. The lawns are beautifully maintained and video photography is permitted at a price. We also came across the elephant stables where elephants used to be kept and fed. As we looked around we spotted a coconut seller selling green coconuts at Rs 5 a piece. What a wonderful way to end the day. The children were delighted to drink the coconut water and eat the tender cream inside it.
We were ready to go when the guide informed us that one last spot remained to be seen. This was the Statue of Narasimha, the Man Lion incarnation of Vishnu. The stone slab informs us that this was carved out of a single monolithic rock somewhere in the early 16th century. It is 22 feet high and although part of the statue has been ruined it is definitely very imposing and striking. On the right we saw an enormous Linga, which was immersed in water, which flowed from a stream nearby. It was a worthy sight and we were glad that we had heeded the guide in ending the tour with this beautiful piece of art.
There are many tiny temples and structures along the way spread wide across the whole countryside. Many of them are in ruins and some seem as though they have been half completed yet the beauty and grandeur of the Vijayanagar Empire is still evident today and one must make a visit to witness the greatness and importance of its place in Indian history.
From here we followed our trip the next day to the famed Badami caves, Pattadakal and Aihole. But that is another story.
Nirmala Garimella wrote this from Lexington, MA.